‘Take a quick look and tell me what you think’ — an innocent request heard every day in all sorts of workplaces including offices, factories, warehouses, shops, mines. It’s the kind of interaction that can demonstrate a healthy willingness among employees and managers to ask for help from their colleagues to seek second opinions, to engage in collaboration and cooperation. But there’s a dark side!
The off-hand request for a ‘quick look’ can also set the stage for workflow errors, poor production quality, damages to reputation, strains on relationships, and even physical injury or death.
Here’s some good guidance for both managers and staff generally to properly address the ‘Take a quick look and tell me what you think’ request.
Consider the following scenarios:
Scenario 1 Failure to act on sexual harassment
As she’s walking the production floor to her office, the production manager, Choi-Ping, notices the male members of the maintenance team laughing somewhat furtively. She also notices that the new maintenance worker, Tina, is not with the group but is instead sitting alone in the coffee area looking quite subdued. The maintenance workers quickly disperse as Choi-Ping approaches. When she enters the administration office, Choi-Ping mentions to Ralph, the maintenance supervisor, ‘Ralph, you might want to take a quick look around to see how Tina is getting on with the team’.
Later that day, Ralph passes by Tina as she is wiping her eyes, and says asks her, ‘How’s it going, Tina?’ Ralph takes Tina’s somewhat forced smile and nod at face value. Weeks later, Tina quits, filing a harassment complaint alleging that the has been excluded by her male co-workers, openly subjected to humiliating sexual references concerning her body, and made the object of both sexual innuendos and jokes in the production area. In her complaint, Tina specifically alleges that Choi-Ping and Ralph had both seen her visibly distressed over a specific incident and done nothing to inquire or investigate.
Scenario 2 OHS oversight
In a print-production facility, Cristina, a casual employee, grows embarrassed and concerned when the stapling machine she has recently been trained on keeps jamming. Worried that something might be wrong, she cautiously approaches her co-worker, a somewhat loud and intimidating employee of many years experience, Patricia, and asks if she will just ‘take a quick look at the stapling machine’. Patricia, under pressure to keep her own production work up, grudgingly gives a cursory look over the machine and declares everything fine, saying as she returns to her own station, ‘You are simply going too slowly — you should know how to operate this thing by now, you know’.
In fact, in her haste, Patricia fails to notice that a piece of debris is jamming Cristina’s stapling machine.
Chastened, though not entirely reassured, Cristina nevertheless tries once more to operate her equipment, the offending debris flies out of the machine and hits Cristina in the eye, causing a serious injury. Patricia ends up embroiled in the subsequent accident investigation, which in turn hits the media as an example of the company’s horrendous accident rate.
Potential problems and possible solutions
These scenarios exemplify potential problems with the quick look request.
First, the way I make my request that you take a ‘quick look’ — and (secondly), the way you respond — often leaves some critical questions unanswered as to what I really want from you, what you are agreeing to do, and whether I should be agreeing to this. Thirdly, without a common, explicit and effective decision framework, my actual execution of the quick look may be problematic or even harmful.
Let’s take a closer look at these problems, and how we might deal with them.
Unanswered questions — the problem
The potential for a lack of communication clarity between the people involved in the exchange of a quick look request can take a number of different forms:
- The ‘lazy request’: Often, the person making the request for a quick does not give seriousconsideration to what they actually want and why. Whether due to time pressures, laziness, distraction or other reasons, in scenario 1, Choi-Ping never took responsibility for thinking through the situation herself before seeking to pass of some or all of that responsibility to Ralph.
- The ‘timid request’: Sometimes, the person making the request for a quick look is very clear on what she wants, but is unwilling to ask clearly. Cristina probably experienced multiple pressures in asking for Patricia’s help with the staple machine: tentativeness over dealing with a pushy and impatient co-worker; confusion over working with new machinery; fear over appearing incompetent to her new employer; etc. As a result, she felt safer asking Patricia to take a quick look at her equipment, rather than imposing on Patricia’s time in making a full and assertive explanation of the problem she was facing, and a clear request that Patricia help her sort the problem out completely.
- The ‘set up’: Sometimes, the person making the request for a quick look may even be acting onmalicious intentions to make the other look bad, by not being clear about what is needed as part of the quick look, or who will be relying on the quick look, or what will happen next.
Solution: Ask the right questions
Addressing the problem of unanswered questions is pretty straight forward: ask the questions. This means that when my assistant Josephine comes to me with a request that we take a quick look over my plans, my memo, the worksite, or anything else, I ask as many questions as I need to in order to establish to my own satisfaction that Josephine and I are both on the same page about what she is asking of me, and what I am agreeing to.
Here are some great questions to consider asking before you agree to do a quick look at someone’s request:
- What do I need to do so that you feel like I’m giving this the attention you are looking for?
- How much time do you anticipate me spending on this?
- How is my input important?
- How do you see me as being helpful in this?
- How will my input change things?
- How will my input affect what you do next or what happens next?
- What will you do with this after you get my response?
- Who will you share my input with?
- Will anyone else aside from you be relying on my input?
- Who else will be looking over this aside from me?
- What will you do if I give you a response that you don’t agree with or like?
- What is your time frame on this and what’s important about that time frame?
- How much detail do you want me to go into in responding?
Of course, what specific questions you ask and how you ask it will depend on the circumstances. You’ll need to use different approaches and words with different people at different times. The important thing is to take responsibility for ensuring that there is sufficient clarity between you before you agree to take on responsibility for the quick look.
Don’t hold back
We shouldn’t minimise the challenge here. Think of receiving a request for a quick look from your boss, an intimidating co-worker, or a new hire that you want to support as she struggles to succeed in her new job. Depending on the context, there can be a lot of resistance — both from us and from the other person — to responding to a request for a quick look with questions.
Here are some of the things that can be behind your own resistance:
- Teamwork: You actually want to be helpful to the other person.
- Status: You like the idea of being seen as a the ‘go to’ person.
- Responsibility: You see it as your job to be helpful to this person.
- Selfishness: You want to get rid of the guy quickly so you can get on with your own work.
- Intimidation: You don’t want to anger or annoy the other person.
Asking the right questions requires focus
So, asking the questions in response to a quick look can require:
- attention —maintaining awareness as to when requests and expectations may not be aligned
- intention — focusing on achieving good communication for everyone’s benefit
- courage —being prepared to do the right thing by asking the necessary questions before acceding to the request to do a quick look, even when you are uncomfortable
- skill —finding a way of asking the questions that leads to more clarity, better communication,and a better outcome all around.
Lack of a quick-look-decision model — root of the problem
When you’ve asked all the right questions and have taken on the responsibility to do a quick look, you need to do a good job. If you don’t know what you are looking for, you may miss or fail to act on important information.
Solution — test that helps
The PEME test is a great decision model you can use whenever you need to scan the environment.
The test reminds us to focus on the following:
Prohibited behaviour (breaches of laws, regulations, policies, codes of conduct, workplace rules, etc.)
Effects of problematic behaviour or situations (risk of physical injury, conflict, disengagement, high turnover, absenteeism, etc.)
Motivations/drivers of problematic behaviour (substance abuse, mental illness, personality disorders,resentment, etc.)
Escalations in problematic behaviour or risk.
In conducting your quick look at anything, if you come across any suggestion that one of more of the above may be present, your report back should highlight that information.
For instance, if Choi-Ping (scenario 1) had used PEME herself, she might have concluded on the basis of her observations that there was a suggestion of behaviour prohibited by policy — social exclusion — going on in the workplace in relation to Tina. Similarly, even if Ralph had not heard or seen any suggestion of prohibited behaviour, he did see Tina crying, and was therefore in the position to identify that as a possible effect of a problematic behaviour or situation.
A tool for scanning
The critical thing to remember about PEME is that it is a tool for scanning.
Because any one of the four elements — prohibited behaviour, effects, motivations/drivers or escalations — is sufficient to warrant further action, the test has a very low threshold. To put it another way, application of the PEME test can lead to lots of reports back from a quick look that we need to pay attention to something.
That low threshold is a good thing, particularly when it comes to issues of physical safety. We want lots of false positives, because the consequence is simply that people are then driven to take a closer look and make more careful determinations. We want to avoid false negatives, in which the scan of the situation results in potentially important information being missed.
It is also important to appreciate that using PEME as a scanning tool only answers the question: Does everything appear to be okay or might further action be required? It does not answer the question of what further action is required, beyond reporting back on the results of the quick look. That determination of what to do next should only be made after a fuller picture has been obtained.
The quick look request, like every other interaction in the workplace, imposes certain obligations on both parties.
Both have the responsibility to communicate well, to seek clarity, to ensure that critical information is being shared, and to their jobs well. These responsibilities are never ‘quid pro quo’ — it’s not good enough to say, ‘I’ll do my bit if you do yours’. Even if the other person is falling down on his responsibilities in the interaction, you must attend to yours.
Don’t let yourself fall into a vulnerable position by virtue of an apparently off the cuff request from someone. There’s a lot at stake.